Media students give candidates a lesson in political communication

30 August 2013

With several high-profile gaffes marking the federal election campaign to date, more than 70 postgraduate media students from the University of Sydney have hit the campaign trail to teach local candidates the value of effective political messaging.

As part of their 'Political Public Relations' course, the students approached candidates from across the political spectrum, including dozens of new players from the Palmer United Party, and offered their support as participant observers throughout the campaign and beyond to polling day.

From handing out flyers to dolling out critiques of their candidate's performance at public forums, the students have gained a unique insight at the coalface of the political battlefield over the past five weeks.

They are now also required to devise a complete public relations campaign for the political contenders' run for office, and have the option to present their candidates in front of their class at a capstone presentation at the end of Semester.

The project is the brainchild of course coordinator Dr Richard Stanton, who brings to bear his insider knowledge of political campaigning, having stood as an Independent candidate for the NSW Legislative Council in 2011.

Goddes Hope Oliveros

Goddes Oliveros
Goddes Hope Oliveros

Goddes Hope Oliveros is an AusAid-supported international student from the Philippines. She is working alongside two fellow Filipino students on the campaign trail with Nadeem Ashraf, the Palmer United Party candidate for the electorate of Reid in Sydney's Western Suburbs.

"When I wrote the campaign proposal for my candidate I emphasised that in order for them to have a chance to win, they should prove to Australians that they [Palmer United] are a legitimate party. Australians should perceive them as a serious party and not a nuisance party," she said.

"He invited us into a public forum and asked us to observe his performance and give him tips. When he spoke we were taking notes and we noticed some errors and mistakes as far as communication is concerned. He also consults us when it comes to the colours of shirts that he will wear. It's all part of the image. I think you wouldn't be able to do that if you were campaigning for a much larger party. Here they are trusting us and we have more time to talk because it is a new party.

"In the Philippines, you can't just approach a candidate like that, so our experience here is very interesting. The candidates and government officials here are really approachable, unlike in the Philippines where it's very hard to set a meeting or appointment with them."

Loren Helmrich

Loren Helmrich
Loren Helmrich

Loren Helmrich is a Master of Strategic Public Relations student working with John Nasser, the Palmer United candidate for the electorate of Watson in Sydney's Southern suburbs.

"The Palmer United party have limited resources and support, so they've been happy for us to help. It has been more hands-on for us; we get to go out and get involved in the campaign," she said. "I've encouraged John to write into the local papers in his electorate because he's only had one or two articles published about him in the area since he was endorsed.

"I've always been interested in why people want to become politicians. This is John's first time running and he has a genuine interest in his electorate, he is from the area and he's a Lebanese Australian...He knows everyone and he genuinely wants to help the area. I didn't think that would be the case.

"I had absolutely no idea about politics before taking this subject. This assignment has made me take more notice of the political process in the media. If there's something on the television or core flute signs on poles, I'm actually looking at them and evaluating them in PR terms, whereas beforehand I wouldn't have cared. Now I'm really taking notice."

Victoria Ong

Victoria Ong
Victoria Ong

Victoria Ong is attached to the campaign for Dr Michael Feneley, Liberal candidate for Kingsford Smith. She is an international student from Malaysia studying a Master of Media Practice on an International Postgraduate Coursework Scholarship.

"I have been involved in a range of campaigning activities - from traffic displays (holding up campaign signage to traffic), street walks to hand out flyers and balloons, attending community meetings to understand the needs of the electorate, and door-knocking in neighbourhoods," she said.

"The best part of this experience thus far is the new wealth of first-hand insights into how grassroots political campaigning functions in Australia. The cultural immersion as I meet with locals in the electorate and discover new areas of interest is also a plus point!

"Being out on the campaign trail has been challenging, in terms of the physical and emotional capacity required. The long hours out and about, and meeting a fair share of unreasonable and verbally abusive people who are supporters of competing parties can be rather draining!

"It has been interesting to observe the similarities between what I experienced in Malaysia's recent general election in May. These include the need for a strong and committed team of volunteers to run an effective campaign, a sound understanding of issues that matter to the electorate, and being ready to work 24/7 throughout the campaign period until polling day."

Maggie Liu

Maggie Liu
Maggie Liu

Maggie Liu is an international student from China who has been assisting Greens candidate Dianne Hiles, who is standing for the Sydney electorate.

"As an international student, the policy system is quite different from my home country. Before the placement, I had no idea about the political campaign; what I want to get from the experience is to learn more," she said.

"I have been involved in most of the grassroots activities, as well as some campaign events, activities held by the Greens and the campaign team, and some activities held by local community. And I helped to take pictures for Dianne and talked with some potential voters as well.

"Thisis a wonderful chance to get familiarwitha real political campaign in Australia. It isreally important for me to get experienceto learn how to build a good political communicationstrategy in real life.AsI am not familiar with the policy in Australia, I try my best to follow the candidate and to help the candidate.

"Dianne is pretty friendly and nice to us international students. As she was a student of Sydney University as well, she is very willing to help us with our assignments. And if I think a way is better for her, I will suggest it to her and she will think about it and talk with her team as well."

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